Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on November 15, 2008.

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Santa Claus Float, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, Toronto, 1930. Archives of Ontario Reference Code: F 229-308-0-814

From its beginnings as a short trek from Union Station sponsored by Eaton’s department store, the Santa Claus Parade has grown into a tradition for the five hundred thousand spectators on the route each year.

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Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, 1918, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

The first parade was held on December 2, 1905, when Santa arrived from the North Pole at Union Station via train and was greeted by Timothy Eaton. Santa hopped into a horse-drawn truck and rode up to Eaton’s Queen Street store, tossing out candy, toys, and other gifts from his sack to children lined up along the way. For most of the parade’s first decade, Santa ended his journey at Massey Hall, where a court was built to hold youngsters eager to give their gift requests. Towards the end of World War I his destination moved to the store, though as Patricia Phenix described in her book Eatonians, his grand entrance at the end of the parade was not always so smooth:

Any employee who assumed the role of Santa had to face the daunting task of hoisting his padded belly up a fire ladder from the float to the store’s second floor Eaton’s Toyland window, located above Albert Street. More often than not, as “Santa” stumbled, frequently cursing, through the window he was resuscitated by swigs of “Seagram’s medicine,” provided by sympathetic store managers.

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Eaton’s advertisement, Toronto Star, November 14, 1930.

Several of the floats mentioned in this ad touting the 1930 parade would not pass muster today. This was also one of the first parades to feature licensed characters, including tributes to radio shows (Amos ‘n’ Andy) and comic strips (Toonerville Trolley).

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Mary Quite Contrary Float, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, Toronto, 1930. Archives of Ontario Reference Code: F 229-308-0-814.

Fairy tale characters were the usual focus of the floats, such as this one based on “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” Floats and costumes were made in-house by Eaton’s, providing steady work year-round for carpenters and seamstresses. When company president Fredrik Eaton withdrew the store’s sponsorship in 1982 (citing reasons such as the recession and criticism from city officials on the parade’s timing), six full-time craftsmen were laid off after having completed eighty percent of the work on that year’s floats. The stunned workers, some of whom had worked on the parade for over thirty years, locked themselves in the workroom. One lamented to the a Star reporter on the other side of the door that “it would have been a beautiful parade.” He received his wish in December when the parade carried on, thanks to a non-profit group quickly organized by local business leaders and civic officials. At a press conference that announced the parade’s rescue, McDonald’s of Canada president George Cohon declared that, despite the view of the Eaton family, Santa Claus “is recession-proof.”

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The Globe and Mail, November 14, 1969.

Those playing Santa over the years have required varying levels of stamina depending on the parade route. The longest treks occurred between 1910 and 1912, when the parade was a two-day affair that headed downtown from Newmarket, with an overnight stop at York Mills. We suspect that Santa required a lot of “Seagram’s medicine” to survive the cold of those journeys. Yonge and Eglinton was the starting point for several years before the company settled on the Dupont and Dovercourt area, as seen in the 1969 route map above.

Additional material from the August 11, 1982 and August 20, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

tl 1975-11 eatons santa claus parade

Toronto Life, November 1975.

For a couple of years, I handled Torontoist’s coverage of press day for the Santa Claus Parade. Here’s my story about the 2011 parade, originally published on November 3, 2011 – follow this link for images.

For drivers heading onto the Highway 400 ramp from the eastbound collector lanes of Highway 401, the warehouse on the right doesn’t stand out. Just another non-descript suburban light industrial building, one of the dozens that line the highways.

Except, this one serves as the secret headquarters of a jolly old elf.

Pass through the main doors into the warehouse and you’ve entered a space few children or adults would resist running around—past the racks of animal costumes and clown suits, below walls lined with blank stares from moulded masks, around shelves of white mini-cars, and right over to the nearly 30 floats waiting to dazzle spectators along the streets of downtown Toronto.

Amid tuxedoed candy mascots riding waves of a caramel ocean, and classic cartoon characters awaiting their final touch up, the organizers of the Santa Claus Parade announced their plans for the 107th edition of the holiday tradition at a press conference yesterday.

The biggest change spectators will notice on November 20 is a new route. While the parade will depart at 12:30 p.m. from its usual starting point at Christie Pits and head east along Bloor Street, Santa won’t be greeting youngsters along Yonge Street. Instead, the parade will turn right at the ROM and proceed south on University Avenue to Wellington Street, then make a left and continue to St. Lawrence Market. Organizers feel that University’s width will accommodate more spectators than the limited space on other downtown routes. Santa Claus himself has endorsed the new route, noting that “you don’t get as much wind coming down the tunnels of the other streets.”

Santa was also proud to introduce a permanent addition to the parade: his wife. For the first time in the event’s history, Mrs. Claus is headlining her own float, which will immediately precede her husband’s. After years of staying home to watch the parade on television with the elves, she feels it’s time to observe the festivities first-hand. Her float will be a replica of the rustic Claus manor.

Mrs. Claus discussed one of the festival’s tie-in activities, a downloadable colouring book that teaches kids about volunteerism. The book can be construed as a recruitment guide for future parade volunteers, which would please its officials. As co-chair Ron Barbaro described the costumed children on hand at the press conference, “this is probably the first time they’ve volunteered for anything. They’re going to be in the parade. They’re going to wave at people and they will get instant payback.” Barbaro hoped that as a result of their participation, “the children will go on to be sitting out there as sponsors and volunteers for everything in their community.”

Children who aren’t officially walking in the parade will see if Santa catches a glimpse of them as he rides by thanks to a “Santa Cam” attached to his float. The camera will snap still photos along the route, which will posted online for anyone to download and, as parade officials suggested, stick on their fridge. (We hope that any kids who go to the parade and fail to be photographed won’t be teased for being ignored by Santa.) Some children in the pictures will sport red noses sponsored by the Emery Village BIA that will be sold along the route to benefit the parade and the Air Cadets; kids wearing the noses will ride free on the TTC parade day.

Meanwhile, the assemblies of paint, Styrofoam, and wood will be given their final inspections over the next three weeks before they leave the warehouse and fulfill their annual role of kicking off Toronto’s holiday season.

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Evening Telegram, November 20, 1926.

And here’s the following year’s story, originally published on November 5, 2012.

During a drive along the 401 to the Toronto branch of Santa’s Workshop on Friday, there was a sign that Santa Claus was bringing a touch of the holiday season with him for his preview of the 108th Toronto Santa Claus Parade: gentle snow flurries skated across our windshield.

At the workshop, Santa appeared fit and trim amid the floats-in-progress, presumably because of a strict diet and exercise regimen developed by Mrs. Claus and the elves. This should ensure an energetic appearance when he rides his float through downtown streets on November 18. His route, which parade president Peter Beresford described as “six and a half kilometres of smiles and fun,” will be the same as last year. The procession will begin at 12:30 p.m. at Christie Pits, then head east on Bloor Street, south on Queen’s Park/University Avenue, east on Wellington Street, and wrap up at St. Lawrence Market.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Santa Claus Parade’s existential crisis, in 1982. Then, the event was rescued by the downtown business community after its original organizer, Eaton’s department store, decided it was too costly to fund during a recession. Several speakers mentioned this during the preview. They praised all of the donors and volunteers who have kept this seasonal tradition alive.

The parade coincides with the start of the week-long festivities for the 100th edition of the Grey Cup. The game will be saluted with a float carrying a 14-foot replica of the cup, as well as a real-life Toronto Argonauts executive, Pinball Clemons.

Several blasts from the past will evoke nostalgic memories for parade veterans. McDonald’s is sponsoring a replica of a “Farmer in the Dell” float, which appeared in the 1951 procession. It’s intended to be the first in an annual series of throwback floats. The parade website offers a downloadable reprint of a 1952 Eaton’s colouring book, which introduces a new generation of kids to Punkinhead, the defunct department store’s one-time holiday mascot.

The website also offers a downloadable app, which will transform iPhones into jingle bells for onlookers to shake as the procession rolls by. Kids can enter an online draw for four seats on Mrs. Claus’s float. Also, three days after the parade, crowd photos taken from a “SantaCam” affixed to Santa’s float will be available for viewing—and for use in embarrassing anyone caught mugging for the camera.

Red noses are currently available at 30 Canadian Tire locations in the GTA for two dollars apiece. Proceeds will be split between Canadian Tire Jumpstart, which funds recreational sports for low-income children, and the parade. For a donation of $100 to the parade, the organizers will put a child’s name on a banner attached to the 12 Days of Christmas float. Organizers are also aiming to raise $150,000 in toy donations for remote Northern communities, part of the parade’s Toys for the North program.

tely 1926-11-20 santa claus parade look there's santy

Evening Telegram, November 20, 1926.

For some vintage coverage of the parade, here’s the Telegram’s account of the 1926 edition.

tely 1926-11-20 santa claus parade story

Evening Telegram, November 20, 1926.

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